No, really—BITE me, as in, come along with me as I tell you about the BITE Model. This is how I learned what high control groups, like Scientology, have in common.
NOTE: I’ve decided to stop using the “c” word in my writing (ok, just one more time: CULT). It brings up bad memories. There’s no reason for it; I’m out of that situation, so it’s time to move on. It’s a much happier state, and I love it. A lot.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
What the Heck is the BITE Model?
I first discovered the BITE Model when I escaped from the Sea Org in 2007 and started doing some online research. That’s something Scientology would never allow—not for Sea Org members, not for your regular Joe Scientologist on the street, not for anyone.
It took me a while to get through all the online information, mostly because I could only look for a few minutes before crawling into a ball of shame and anguish. After some weeks of this daily routine, I was stronger and more able to read without emotional upheaval.
That’s when I discovered the book by Steve Hassan called Combating Cult Mind Control. Reading this book was an epiphany. A bit of background on Steve Hassan: He’s a former member of the Unification Church (remember the Moonies, my 70s peeps?). He joined at the age of 19, left after two years, and has spent nearly four decades as a mental health counselor helping others rebuild their lives after being in high control groups. He’s a pretty cool dude.
Anyway, back to the book. Hassan describes his BITE Model in detail. Here’s how his Freedom of Mind website explains it:
Many people think of mind control as an ambiguous, mystical process that cannot be defined in concrete terms. In reality, mind control refers to a specific set of methods and techniques, such as hypnosis or thought-stopping, that influence how a person thinks, feels, and acts.
Based on research and theory by Robert Jay Lifton, Margaret Singer, Edgar Schein, Louis Jolyon West, and others who studied brainwashing in Maoist China as well as cognitive dissonance theory by Leon Festinger, Steven Hassan developed the BITE Model to describe the specific methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people. “BITE” stands for Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control.Freedom of Mind website
As I read the book, I saw what I had experienced right there on the page: “Yep, that happened. That too! Oh my God, so did that!” It was like coming out of a deep, dark, cave into blinding light, getting used to that light, and slowly beginning to appreciate the warm, safe feeling. I no longer had any doubt that I had been in a high control group, and was so proud that I’d left.
The BITE Model doesn’t only apply to high control groups; it can just as easily apply to a high control personal or business relationship. In this article, I’ll cover each element in more detail, as well as how I experienced it in Scientology.
Does your group tell you what and when to eat? When to sleep? Where to live? What to wear? Who you can or can’t have sex with? Who you can marry? Whether or not you can have children?
If your answer to any of those questions is “Yes”, then you, my friend, are in a high control group. When I first looked at this list, I just kept ticking off the points:
“Regulate individual’s physical reality.” Tick. I lived in a compound in Hemet surrounded by barbed wire.
“Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates.” Tick. The only people I ever saw were other Sea Org members. There was no “fraternizing” with “wogs” (i.e. those lowly people who weren’t Scientologists).
“Manipulation and deprivation of sleep.” Tick. I believe my average amount of sleep per night was four hours, often less. The longest I went without sleep was seven straight days.
“Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence.” Tick. I wasn’t paid for my 18-20 hour days, 7 days a week. I got an “allowance” of about $40 a week—on a good week. Often is was zero dollars. After all, I was a “religious worker” according to Scientology’s lawyers. Riiiiiiiight.
“Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time.” Tick. When I first got to the Int Base, we had a bit of leisure time on the odd weekend. But that soon ended. Many years we didn’t even have time off for Christmas.
“Permission required for major decisions.” Tick. If I wanted to do anything, I’d have to write what’s known as a CSW, or “Completed Staff Work”, showing why I was eligible to do this “major” thing like go see my family for my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary. That was rejected, however. Most of them were.
“Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative.” Tick. If I had a good week, meaning my statistics were higher than the week before, I’d be able to maybe get a bit more sleep the following week. If I had a bad week, I’d often be eating rice and beans instead of regular food.
“Impose rigid rules and regulations.” Tick. Pretty clear already, right?
“Separation of families.” Tick. I never got to see my family when I was in the Sea Org at the Int Base. In fact, I barely got to talk to them, and when I did, it was with someone else on the line to monitor what I was saying. My brother once told me that he tried to get hold of me because he was in LA and wanted to see me. The operator wouldn’t put me through. He said, “But I’m her family,” to which the operator responded, “We’re her family now.” Sheesh.
There are many more points on the Behavior Control list—25 in all—but these were enough for me to see what had happened. Hey, at least I wasn’t raped or murdered, right? Yeah, they’re on that list, too.
I won’t lay out these points in detail, because this article would be another 10,000 words long. This information restriction was the easiest way for them to keep me in the Sea Org for 20 years. I mean, if I couldn’t look, then I couldn’t find out what was really going on, right?
Scientology clamps down on information like crazy. No current Scientologist has ever seen the HBO documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” or watched Leah Remini and Mike Rinder’s show “Scientology and the Aftermath.” They can’t. If they did, they’d be subject to interrogation.
It’s presented to the everyday Scientologist this way:
“Joe Scientologist, you know that Scientology is the only hope for mankind, and your own eternal spiritual freedom, right? Do you want to block yourself from achieving that freedom and end up in a dwindling spiral for the rest of eternity? No? Then don’t read or watch all this nonsense about Scientology. It’s made up stuff, from suppressives who have crimes against Scientology. It’s designed to enturbulate (upset) you and hamper your spiritual progress. So just stay away from it.”
That’s pretty much word-for-word. However, in the rare occasion that a card-carrying Scientologist decides he or she wants to check out what others are saying about Scientology, one of two things will happen:
Option One: A friend or family member will write a “knowledge report” on the Scientologist and send it in to the Ethics department in their local Scientology organization. Then that person will be brought in for interrogation. Scientology calls it “security checking” or “sec checking.”
Option Two: The Scientologist will feel so guilty about watching something like that, they’ll turn themselves in to Ethics to get a sec check. The sec check, you see, is supposed to make you cough up anything that you might be doing or thinking that could prevent you from progressing up The Bridge to Total Freedom.
It’s all beautifully worked out to keep Scientologists from looking at any information that could open their eyes. But that’s just for the regular, run-of-the-mill Scientologist, not the Sea Org member. Oh, no. In the Sea Org, it’s far worse.
I had no internet access. No cellphone. Nothing except a beeper so I could be contacted by higher-up executives when they needed me. As for access to information critical of Scientology, let me give you an example:
When a damning article came out in Time Magazine in 1991 entitled “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power,” the Int Base staff were mobilized in an all-out blitz. We were up day and night, for weeks on end, creating our counterattack: full-page ads, magazines, booklets, and the like, going into detail about how Time magazine got it wrong about Scientology and what Scientology actually was.
Mind you, none of us were actually allowed to read the article we were spending all our waking (and sleeping) hours to attack. It would have been “too destructive” for us to see it. You can’t make this stuff up, I tell ya.
OK, here’s where the rubber meets the road when we’re talking about high control groups. A few key points from this section:
“Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
a. Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
b. Instill black and white thinking
c. Decide between good vs. evil
d. Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)“
This was my daily life in Scientology:
- L. Ron Hubbard’s teachings are the ABSOLUTE truth. You aren’t permitted to question them. If you do, then you “must” have a misunderstanding and are sent to get your misunderstood words cleared up.
- EVERYTHING is black and white. There are no shades of grey. Hubbard promoted this “all or nothing” mentality in everything he wrote.
- Something is either ENTIRELY good or ENTIRELY evil. Example: Scientologists are good, psychiatrists and psychologists are evil. People who support Scientology are good, and those who oppose Scientology are completely evil.
- Scientologists are the epitome of “Us vs Them” thinking. If you’re a Scientologist, you know you are the only one who can save the world. Everyone else is just not enlightened enough to be able to do anything about it. “They” don’t have the answers; “we” do.
This all also aligns with the last three points in this section:
“Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism“
“Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed“
“Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful“
We learned that even yoga or meditation were evil, as they were considered “other practices” which would harm our spiritual progress. And if we were ever critical about L. Ron Hubbard or his doctrine, we were immediately brought in for that old favorite, sec checking, for hours upon hours to uncover our “crimes against Scientology.”
Another interesting point in the section on Thought Control is this:
“Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words“
Scientology is nothing if not loaded with jargon, buzzwords, and the like. I won’t try to list them all here. When I got out of Scientology, I asked my friend Jeff Hawkins what I should do to start thinking more clearly. He told me to stop using any “Scientologese.” I did. I also stopped using words that would denigrate non-Scientologists. Now I will only use those words to illustrate a point or explain something that you can’t really explain any other way.
Not using those words was a major reason I was able to move past the Scientology thought processes as rapidly as I was. As one of my heroes once said:
Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.Maya Angelou
This one is quintessential Scientology. Every single point in this section is pertinent, but here are a few that were a daily occurrence:
“Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings—some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish:” We were taught early on that in the Sea Org, there is no “case on post” which means that you can’t display any “lower” emotions such as fear or grief. But it’s perfectly okay to display anger, antagonism, and other such emotions. After all, it was all for the “greater good,” right?
“Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault:” Everything that I did, every issue I had, was always my fault. I’m not talking about being responsible for my own situation here; I’m talking about being blamed for anything hurtful or destructive that someone else did to me. Example: If I was slapped by a higher-up, I must have done something to “pull it in”. I deserved it.
“Extremes of emotional highs and lows—love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner:” I’ve written about love bombing in this blog, and it’s a common trait of high control groups and people. In the Sea Org, this would all happen within the space of minutes or hours. Case in point: I would be brought up in front of the whole crew and given an award for how much response a certain magazine got (i.e., money), then an hour later would be brought into Miscavige’s office and told I was a worthless piece of crap for an article I wrote in a different magazine. It was a roller coaster, that’s for sure.
“Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins:” Every week we had a staff meeting for the whole organization. The first part of this meeting was always “Flaps and Handlings:” A person would have to come up in front of the group, state what their flap was, and then state the handling. Part of this was always confessing to something they had done or not done that was a crime against Scientology. Such a positive, uplifting way to start a meeting, right?
“Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority:” Whenever someone would escape, we’d hear about how that person had just forfeited their spiritual freedom for eternity, and what horrible things they were doing that prompted them to leave. We were told that they would never find happiness, would probably be “flipping burgers at McDonalds” (one of Miscavige’s favorite lines), and would end up committing suicide or dying of an incurable disease. This kept a lot of us from leaving for a long time. Now, however, I have a lot of ex-Int Base friends who are all doing extremely well in life—no surprise there.
OK, this is all fine for me, but what does it have to do with you?
Learning about the BITE Model was one of the first steps to healing from my trauma, and an important one. I could clearly see what I’d been involved in and how I’d been manipulated, and I never looked back. To this day, whenever I have even the slightest question about a personal or business relationship, I go back to this BITE Model and check.
You may have never been in a group like Scientology. But maybe you’ve been through some trauma in your past and you’ve had a hard time breaking free from the shame and guilt of it all. If that’s the case, I invite you to review the BITE Model in more detail. See if these points apply to your situation, either present or past. You may have a few “AHA moments” that you didn’t expect.
This was the first step to my mental and emotional freedom. Maybe it can be yours as well.